We should learn from our experience in Solomon Islands how to better balance Australia’s strategic interests with regional commitments. By Jenny Hayward-Jones.

Jenny Hayward-Jones
Wisdom from the Solomon Islands

On July 24, 2003, the largest military operation in the Pacific Islands since World War II was deployed in Solomon Islands. It was led by Australia, in support of the multinational Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). About 1800 military personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga were accompanied by about 230 police from Australia, New Zealand and almost every other nation in the region. Their job was to restore law and order to the troubled island nation. A small contingent of Australian and New Zealand treasury and finance officials was there to help fix the broken finances of Solomon Islands. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AusAID co-ordinated the large-scale intervention, which had come at the request of a desperate Solomon Islands government.

I will never forget the awe I felt when I saw the sea of khaki tents that covered Henderson International Airport as the Air Vanuatu plane I was on descended on Honiara that day in 2003. As an officer of the foreign affairs department passionate about enhancing Australia’s relationships with Pacific Island countries, I was excited to be involved in this remarkable mission, working in the office of special co-ordinator Nick Warner. I recall thinking that the last time the Japanese-constructed airfield had seen this much action was when the Allies captured it from Japan in late 1942. 

But a more extraordinary sight awaited me – hundreds of Solomon Islanders, mostly women and children – lining the fences of the airport and filling the surrounding hills holding pidgin “Welkam” signs. They smiled and waved at the incoming Qantas charter plane that carried the RAMSI special co-ordinator and military and police commanders. There was little doubt this mission was not only needed but deeply desired by the people, who were tired of their country being held to ransom by militants and thugs.

A large Australian media contingent was there to cover the history-making mission. The journalists were anxious to know how long such a big contingent of our soldiers and the largest-ever overseas deployment of Australian police would be in Solomon Islands. While the military deployment was not contentious in Australia, it was a large one at a time when our troops were also committed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Timor-Leste. The answers from the RAMSI senior executive to this question were never straightforward, reflecting appropriate caution about when all the mission’s objectives would be achieved. But the larger problem was the lack of agreement on an exit strategy within the RAMSI management team, in Canberra and among the regional coalition that made up the mission.

In research recently published by the Lowy Institute, I have argued that Australia’s costly investment of $2.6 billion in real terms was allowed to accumulate over a decade because no one was prepared to make the difficult decision to end the mission.

In spite of the very significant costs, however, there are some valuable lessons to be learnt from Australia’s 10 years of experience in Solomon Islands.

First, one of the most positive outcomes was the cooperative model established by the region’s security forces. The multinational defence forces learnt how to collaborate in an operational environment and the combined police forces worked alongside the Royal Solomon Islands police to restore law and order and share their experience to improve the effectiveness of the local force. This experience could be built on by involving regional defence and police forces in future responses to natural disasters in the region, which would serve the twin purpose of delivering effective assistance and strengthening Australia’s influence in the Pacific Islands.

Second, the placement of Australian officials in frontline positions in the Solomons government helped resolve some immediate challenges, particularly in policing but also in government finances. Over time, however, this approach was not as effective as it might have been in building the skills of local officials and developing affordable and sustainable systems in government. 

Despite $1.5 billion of Australian Federal Police spending, RAMSI police remain there, still working with the local police. Any future efforts to provide this kind of support to poor countries would have more chance of long-term impact if they focus on developing the capacity of local authorities at an earlier stage, even if this means sacrificing early positive results.

Third, the alignment of the objectives and operations of Australian government agencies made for some good results in Solomon Islands. As the Abbott government pursues greater alignment of foreign, economic, aid and security policies, most notably through the recent integration of foreign affairs and trade with AusAID and the announcement of the new Australian Border Force, it is crucial to apply the lessons – good and bad – gleaned from the agencies that learnt to work together in Solomon Islands.

Last, the large number of players and the unevenness of progress across the three pillars of RAMSI – law and justice, economic governance and machinery of government – made it difficult for decision-makers to reach a common position on when the mission should be drawn down. 

There were sound strategic reasons behind Australia’s decision to intervene in Solomon Islands in 2003. Canberra was then projecting Australia’s image as a responsible international player engaging in Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and Iraq, it had to be seen to be taking the lead in resolving a national crisis in its own region – whatever the merits of John Howard’s stated concerns about Solomon Islands being a haven for terrorists and other criminals. But the accumulation of spending on RAMSI beyond the vital initial restoration of law and order and repair to government finances was in the end disproportionate to Australia’s real interests in the stability of Solomon Islands.

Future decisions to respond to crises in the neighbourhood should be based on a clear articulation of Australia’s strategic interests. An exit strategy based on limited and defined criteria should be agreed at the outset. Reasonable expenditure limits should be set. Rigorous and honest assessments of performance and impact need to be made regularly. Government needs to have the tools, the information and the courage to make judgments about when the costs of continuing a foreign commitment outweigh any possible benefits.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Wisdom from the Solomons". Subscribe here.

Jenny Hayward-Jones
is the Melanesia Program director at the Lowy Institute.